Parents of young children get many demands for their attention. Life is busy for parents, trying to manage work responsibilities, home responsibilities, and caring for children. During all of that, children are making constant bids for parents’ attention. Children want parents and adults to play with them, watch them play, etc., and they will do whatever they can think of to get and hold our attention. However, as much as we would like to give them all of our attention, there are just other things that need done. Unfortunately, what often ends up happening is that we do not give children much attention or praise when they are engaging in behaviors that we approve of, but we give our attention when they start to misbehave.

Attention to Undesired Behaviors

For example, we might proceed to put the groceries away if our child is playing quietly near us, but when he starts to whine, we then give him our attention to scold or discipline that undesirable behavior. Because they want the attention from us, if there are behaviors we have given children lots of attention for in the past, they will engage in those behaviors again when they want our attention. Unfortunately, because we tend to give more attention for undesirable behaviors, this sometimes leads children to engage in undesirable behaviors to get our attention

Therefore, this series is going to discuss ways to flip this balance – trying to give our children less attention for their undesirable behaviors while giving them more attention for their desirable behaviors. Research has shown that making these changes leads to stronger bonds between parents and their children more desirable behavior from children. While some of these strategies are useful to use with older children, these tips are specifically validated for children ages two to seven. Some of the concepts discussed would also be helpful to use with older children, but as children mature, they do not seek adult attention as much as young children do, so they work a bit differently.

Positive Attention

We’ll first consider how to give our children more positive attention for the desirable behaviors we would like to see more of. Providing positive attention for behaviors we approve of makes us and our children feel good, and it helps children learn what appropriate behaviors they can engage in to get that positive attention from us in the future. Essentially, any statement that communicates that you hear your child and are paying attention will work well. This could include paraphrasing what they have said or describing what they are doing. Your positive attention can also be given by imitating what they do – just like for us, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Another great way to give your child positive attention is to provide what we call ‘labeled praises.’ Like it sounds, these are statements that describe specifically what the child has done while adding a positive evaluative component. Some examples include, “You’re drawing a very pretty picture,” “Great job sharing with your sister,” “Thank you for sitting on your bottom,” and so forth. We’ll revisit the labeled praises in future installments. Essentially, however you incorporate this positive attention, it will work best if it is enthusiastic and specific language that the child can understand is used so that we make it clear for them what behaviors they can engage in to get that positive attention from us. When we consistently give positive attention for desirable behaviors, children are less likely to resort to undesirable behaviors to get negative attention from us!


Try practicing some of these skills during play with your child! Research has shown that even five minutes a day of dedicated play time with our children, where we minimize other distractions and let the child lead the play, can have beneficial effects for our relationship with our children as well as their behavior.

More Installments to Come

Look out for upcoming installments in this series! Future installments will discuss how to combine these skills with other discipline skills that work to reduce our children’s undesirable behaviors while minimizing the amount of attention we are giving them for their negative behaviors.

If you would like more information regarding these concepts and skills, are interested in applying these principles for older children, or are having significant difficultly managing your child’s behavior, consider calling the clinic to schedule behavior management therapy, in which a clinician can work with your family to implement these principles on an individualized basis.